For all true red-bloods, the ghosts of Istanbul are alive and well and all around these days, as Liverpool prepare to take on Roma with a Champions League final place at stake.
Club legend Michael Owen is no exception, even if back in 2005 the then Real Madrid man could only look on helplessly but with mounting excitement and euphoria — tinged with a nagging personal sense of what might have been — as Liverpool famously overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat AC Milan in that unforgettable decider.
“I was in my lounge watching it in Madrid,” he recalled yesterday on a visit to Dublin. “It was a total mix of feelings for me. Disbelief, definitely. But also thinking, ‘Jeez, that could have been me’, having only left that season. So there was almost regret in a way but also you’re really pleased for your big mates, like Carra and Stevie Gerrard. So it was a strange feeling.”
While Owen insists moving to the Bernabeu had been the right decision at the time, he doesn’t mind admitting that the leaving of Liverpool was done “with a heavy heart”.
The bigger regret, however, is that events would conspire to prevent him reversing the journey in years to come.
“When I left Liverpool to go to Madrid I just thought at the time that this was an opportunity I couldn’t really say no to,” he said. “I thought I’d try to do an Ian Rush: Go away for a year and come back. That was the plan. But life takes its twists and turns. After a year we were desperate to get back, my wife was struggling being abroad and away from her family.
“I’d met Rafa (Benitez) and agreed everything really and then Newcastle came in with a whopping big bid.
“Madrid said I could go to Liverpool but only if they’d match it. Liverpool, who had sold me for £8m (€9.1m) were willing to pay £10m (€11.4m) but certainly not £16m (€18.2m) plus. So that scuppered that chance of going back.”
For their part, Newcastle understood that Owen still hankered after a return to Merseyside and, under the terms of his contract, he says they were prepared to make it “relatively easy” for him to move again at the end of each season.
“But, after a year of playing there, I go to the World Cup (in 2006) and do my knee so that’s that summer out of the way,” he ruefully recalled.
“And the next one, you speak to the manager but now they’ve got Torres and don’t need you. And the story goes on — under Brendan Rogers they had Suarez. I don’t regret the decision to move to Madrid — it was the right one at the time. The only sadness for me is that the chance to come back never fell into place, but not for the want of trying by both myself and the club.”
If the retired 38-year-old was still in his playing prime now and still looking to get back to Anfield, he would of course find a new and seemingly even more insurmountable obstacle his way: A goal machine by the name of Salah. So what does one MO make of the other?
“At the start of the season, I was watching him thinking ‘cor, he misses a lot of chances, he could be scoring 20 a season’,” he laughed.
This, for Owen, pinpoints the most startling aspect of Salah’s breakthrough — the Egyptian is a player who is clearly “learning on the job”, something he reckons is “very rare” at the elite level.
“He’s improving in front of our eyes,” he observed, with a hint of wonder. “He’s not one of those who had a pedigree as a kid of breaking every record. He’s not like a Fowler, or me, who were always goalscorers.
“As a goalscorer, I’ve always been a massive believer that you have had to learn your trade at a young age. That was when, for example, you would develop your stock finishes.
“Like, I hated going around the ‘keeper and so I had to find another way. This was something I learned at nine or 10. When I was one-on-one, going ‘round the ‘keeper was not an option for me because I’d only score two out of 10. But I’d score a dink finish, five out of 10. Or a slide finish, six out of 10. But you’ll only work that out if you’re getting regular chances. If not, you’ll play safe and concentrate on hitting it hard and hitting the target. Because that’s the natural thing to do.
“But Mo Salah’s goal against Man City at the Etihad — that sums up his season for me. That was an example of what the greats can do under pressure. In a situation like that, everyone else’s heartbeat gets faster — theirs slows down. Even people at home were probably gripping their armrests and screaming ‘Hit it’. But you saw what he did — he dinked it.
"And I don’t think he would he have done that earlier in his career or even at the start of this season. But he is so confident and self-assured that now he can do something like that and suffer the consequences if he misses. Because these days he hardly ever does.”
While most of the credit for Salah’s sensational season must go to the player himself, Owen also feels the support of the contrasting attacking styles of Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane has been critical to his success, emphasising the point by citing an unlikely comparison from his own playing days.
The still well-connected Owen is also in a position to offer some reassurance to Liverpool fans who are bound to be nervous at recent reports suggesting Salah could follow in his footsteps to Madrid.
“I know Real Madrid is Real Madrid and can turn heads but think Liverpool is his end destination,” he said.
“He was desperate to come to Anfield and I know that because I was only talking to his agent on the train a few weeks ago.
“It was his dream move and, with Liverpool upwardly mobile now — and a team that massively suits his style of play — why would you want to go anywhere else?”
More immediately, Owen is convinced Salah can help Liverpool to reach this year’s Champions League final.
“You look back at the team that won the Champions League last time and you’d have to say this team is far better,” he offered. “I was only doing TV with Steven Gerrard the other day. He was part of that team and even he was saying, ‘this team would have absolutely killed us’. Gerrard, Carragher, maybe Alonso — apart from those, this team would have eight out of the 11.”
If Liverpool do get through, winning the glittering prize will be another matter, however, with Owen inclined to stick with his long-held view that Real Madrid will be masters of Europe once again.
Not that there will be any chance of torn allegiance on his part should that match-up of his old clubs come to pass.
“I’m proud to have played for Real Madrid but I was at Liverpool since I was a baby, really,” he concluded with a smile.
“They’re my team.”
Michael Owen was in Dublin for an exclusive event hosted by Cadbury, ‘Official Snack Partner’ to the Premier League. Hosted in The Chocolate Factory in Dublin, Michael was joined by SuperValu and Centra competition winners from all over the country as they enjoyed a meet and greet with the football legend. The 2017/18 season marked the first year of Cadbury’s three-year partnership.
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